Part of a Series. See here.
In January of this year, I had taken a friend to Mumbai. One of the places we went to was Lower Parel – I wanted to show him what I could of the Mills. You could still see the Mills then, if not in the same form. The same compounds now housed small galleries and boutiques. There were advertisements for a ‘mills culture tour’, sold as something in between a bar hop and an art gallery cruise. I knew big clubs had opened here, as had malls. Phoenix Mills was Mumbai’s version of Delhi’s DLF Emporio – all the major global brands were there. Even here, however, I remember laughing and pointing out to him that some of Bombay’s stubborn egalitarianism remained. Armani was next to Addidas. Rohit Bal next to a paper store. Unlike in Delhi where no non-hyper-elite brand could get near DLF Emporio, in Bombay, even Armani couldn’t buy space away from Adiddas.
It was a small consolation but I’ve grown increasingly fond of those however bitter and however much the joke is, in the end, on me. It was also a distraction from the layout of Phoenix Mills itself — the courtyard and the erstwhile industrial sheds had been retained as “public spaces” between different parts of the Mall. Industrial design met retail design without a blink. Worker met shopper. Job security/benefits met temporary contract. The chimney — that perennial visual symbol of the factory — was now painted in red and white candy stripes but left intact. Perhaps it was a joke. Perhaps it is meant to be quaint. I stood, trying to grasp how easily things disappear in the city. How it consumes itself just as we consume it.
But this in an old story and many others have told it better and, more than anything, I have an ambivalent relationship about nostalgia in any of its forms – even for Mills. But this Monday I went back to Lower Parel to walk through that skeleton again. It was unrecognisable. In the six months that had passed [the very same six months which, I later learnt, are the months of super fast construction in Mumbai as everyone races to build before the rains], the entire landscape had changed. There were no less than seven new high rise buildings sheathed in glass that stood where not a hammer or bulldozer was in sight in January. The chimneys, the industrial sheds, even the skeletons were gone. Lower Parel had risen.
I stood staring, not knowing what to do. What does one do with such a pace of change? How does one respond to it, specifically, if one’s training is in something called “urban planning” which assumed that something about this change can be directed, controlled, cajoled, or at least, pleaded with? I stare at this new skyline and think about change in the city. I twist and squirm in my head until I find something that enlivens me: if the mills did not stand, no matter how fearsome and heavy and eternal they must have felt at one time, then neither will these glass towers and malls that stand in their place now. I still cannot find, acrobatics aside, any way to insert my own understanding of urban or political practice into how this change will occur or how to direct towards outcomes that I see as desirable, progressive and just, but I hang onto this sense. This sense that change is all that this city knows and it does not care for glass any more than for brick and mortar [see: small consolations, above; also see general foolish optimism, Bhan (undated and continuous).] This sense that it can be tilted again.
I walk on. I reach Bandra and decide to try the new skywalks. Climbing the stairs and walking across the Western Express Highway, I see new vistas of the city and try and make up my mind what I think about these new passages in the sky. I think how useful they would be in Gurgaon. I wonder what it would take to get someone to build them. Then I stop. In a narrow strip of land, barely four to five hundred square feet, squeezed between a water pipe and the highway about a thirty feet below me, are a strip of shanties, coated with the familiar blue tarp that wraps our cities. There are about 12 shanties to the right of the water pipe. On the left, adjoining the wall, there is just rubble. A bulldozer slowly makes its way through pots, pans, roofs, baskets, beans, wood planks, and people. The houses have just been demolished.
The only thing I can think is that the bulldozer moves so slowly. Inch by inch. There are nearly forty police men, in construction hard hats that make me want to laugh. What debris are they afraid of? No one seems to be doing anything. Unlike the buildings of Lower Parel that seem to rise in inches per hour, the bulldozer moves barely three of four feet, clearing almost no rubble. Everyone seems weary. Families sit on the water pipe, watching, negotiating for found objects, salvaging. I wonder what made the municipality decide that this was the day these four hundred square feet of land, wedged between a water pipe and a highway, of no use and blocking no right of way, needed to be claimed back by the city. I wonder what other possible use that land could have that could be of more value that housing the people it does. I wonder if the shacks on the right will go tomorrow.
I wonder back to my training. To planning. To the idea of bringing deliberate and intentional change in the city. I think about intervention, about running down there for a wasted protest that will only make me feel better, but also about thinking differently and protecting even that strip of land for those that settled it and gave it value. I wonder if the plan is the place where these battles can be fought at all. I wonder if bulldozers can destroy skyscrapers. I wonder if they too would then rush to bring down floor after floor before the rains came. I wonder if the policemen would wear hard hats agianst the falling shards of glass. I close my eyes to imagine it. When I open them again, the bulldozer still stands, almost still, on rubble.